Report disputes trail booster claims

The great Adirondack rail-trail debate has been raging for years. Trail boosters continue to claim economic prosperity is just around the corner, provided the rails are removed from the Remsen-Lake Placid rail corridor and a recreational trail is built in its place. Trail boosters also continue the daily assault on the viability of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and new attempts by ASR to restore extremely popular rail bike operations to the northern segment of the rail corridor.

Soon it will be two complete seasons since the railroad venues were last providing tourism activity to the benefit of Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. ASR was successful in preserving the railroad asset against an unlawful and ill-conceived plan to remove all traces of the historic railroad despite adverse efforts by Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. In the meantime, an unused railroad is beginning to show signs of being reclaimed by nature. All previous efforts by the New York State Department of Transportation to preserve the railroad with regular maintenance will soon be lost.

It is also a bit more than two years since a very interesting but rarely referenced trail user report was prepared by the Planning Bureau of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. In February of 2016, the 70-page report entitled “An Analysis of the 2015 Trail User Survey and Count” was released: https://parks.ny.gov/recreation/trails/documents/2015TrailUserSurveyCountReport.pdf.

The overview of this document explains the survey data was collected on 15 trails in various regions across New York state. Detailed descriptions of each trail selected are presented with user metrics and individual results. Data collected from users include questions about how often the user is on a trail, distance traveled to access points, daily spend estimates and other pertinent information often collected by trail advocates.

Statewide results begin on page 52. Although this survey uses the word “visitor” and “user” interchangeably, the authors correctly identify non-local users as the key to economic success. On page 53 is found this extremely important fact: “However, only 2 percent of trail visits captured in this survey involved an overnight stay. Seventy-one percent of those nights were at a second home or a friend or relative’s home.” Doing the math, one finds only seven people were assumed to have made commercial lodging arrangements. This stunning result is in stark contrast to the prosperous economic narrative forwarded by many trail groups, especially those in favor of rail trail conversion for the Remsen-Lake Placid rail corridor.

A chart on page 60 indicates on average only 14 percent of user surveys were completed by non-local users. Page 61 finds additional important conclusive facts quoted here:

¯ “Few trails had high percentages of non-local visitors.”

¯ “In comparison, 7 out of the 15 surveyed trails had less than 10 percent of visitors who were identified as non-local.”

¯ “As such, the greatest impacts come from non-locals staying overnight. Only a few of these trips occurred across the 15 trails, suggesting, along with other survey responses, that many of these trails are not destination trails but rather they play an important role in health and exercise for members of the local community.”

¯ “The majority spent between one to two hours on the trail, but traveled five miles or less to reach the trail. From this and geographical information systems (GIS) analysis based on zip code data, it is clear many of the trails serve local populations.”

¯ “[T]he economic contribution is not as large as if they served large populations of non-local visitors staying overnight.”

I am not surprised the results of this report are not being showcased on the many social media pages of the trail advocate groups. In a tourism economy, primary-purpose overnight visitors are the users who bring new money into a region to stimulate economic growth.

The report identified above is strong evidence existing recreational trails in New York are not creating the kind of economic activity that is promised by the trail boosters promoting the dismantling of the railroad between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid. The Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates are misguided and are misleading the business community and municipal representatives when they speculate their rail trail will attract tens of thousands of overnight visitors to the Tri-Lakes region. It is time for NYSDOT to restore the northern operation of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and a return of the rail bike venue to the historic rail corridor.

James Falcsik lives in Irwin, Pennsylvania.